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Horses and plants have the same basic needs

“The better you understand horses, the less often conflict will arise.”

— Cherry Hill, “How to Think Like a Horse,” 2006

You may be wondering why I started this week’s gardening column with a quote about horses. Before I explain, let me say that throughout my life I’ve cared for several horses and innumerable plants. Although the two things have many obvious differences, I’ve come to realize they have several similarities, too.

If “horses” is replaced with “plants” in the passage from Cherry Hill’s book, it reads: “The better you understand plants, the less often conflict will arise.” Either way, it’s sound advice.

Understanding begins by learning what horses, and plants, need most. Hill lists four primary needs for horses, and they turn out to be the same requirements for plants.

1. Self-preservation, avoiding being injured or eaten by a predator. Just like horses, plants have evolved characteristics that help them evade their predators; for plants, predators include insects and herbivorous animals such as deer.

Different plants have developed different defense mechanisms: thorns (roses), stinging hairs (nettles), waxy leaves (camellias), toxins (foxgloves, apples), sticky substances that entrap predators (milkweed), nectars that attract beneficial predators (lavender) and camouflage (lithops). Mimosas, or sensitive plants, shrivel up and play dead to protect themselves from predators.

2. Eating and drinking for survival. Horses need food and water to stay healthy, and so do plants. Plants make their own food through photosynthesis, but the process requires carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and nutrients.

Some plants have evolved bulbs to store food (onions, lilies), whereas others have long taproots (dandelions, carrots) or deep root systems (trees, groundcovers) to search out food and moisture.

3. Procreation. After surviving and staying healthy, horses and plants focus on perpetuating their species. My horse, Jax, had a girlfriend when he was almost 30 (that’s about 85 in human years), and he didn’t care that he was gelded.

Plants have evolved a variety of creative ways to procreate. Some plants have exploding seedpods (hairy bittercress, squirting cucumber, violets). Other plants have adapted seedpods that stick to fur, feathers and socks (foxtails, burdock), or they have sticky pollen that is carried off by bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Some plants have feathery, papery or winged seedpods that maximize wind dispersal (maple, elm, dandelions), and other plants have seeds that can remain dormant for decades before they germinate (gorse, pigweed, bindweed).

4. Socialization and routines. As herd animals, horses like to band together and develop social hierarchies. Many people don’t realize that plants have social lives, too. Plants form a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which attach to the roots and develop an underground network that can extend for miles.

Plants also communicate with each other by sending out chemical signals from their leaves and roots. Companion plants that grow in communities help each other by attracting beneficial insects, deterring pests and providing nutrients, shade and structural support.

Just like horses, plants thrive with consistent food and water. Many plants also like consistent temperature and sunlight. Tomato plants, for example, will drop their flowers or fruit if temperatures become too cold or too hot. The fruit may develop blossom end rot if the plant lacks consistent moisture or nutrients.

Understanding the needs of others, whether the “other” is a horse, a plant or a person, is the key to harmonious coexistence. Of course, there is value in diversity and beauty in difference, but all living things are connected because the things we really need are remarkably the same.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.